SANTA CLARA -- It had been more than a year since the 49ers saw Jalen Hurd on the practice field, but coach Kyle Shanahan had a plan for the 6-foot-5 wide receiver.
Once the regular season started, there might be some games in which Hurd would not be much of a factor. But if the circumstances – and opposing defensive personnel – called for it, Hurd would provide Shanahan with a variety of options.
One area where Shanahan relished the thought of unleashing Hurd was in no-huddle or two-minute situations.
With a premium on getting to the line of scrimmage quickly, there are no substitutions on either side of the ball. Hurd’s versatility presented Shanahan with limitless options. He could line up at either wide receiver position, slot, tight end, H-back or even in the backfield. He could be a receiver, blocker or ball carrier.
Shanahan likes receivers who are versatile. Hurd was an extreme.
Now, those receivers remaining on the team’s practice field have no choice but to become fluent in all the different positions.
Hurd is out for the season with a torn ACL. Deebo Samuel and Richie James are on the non-football injury list as they recover from surgeries to repair a broken foot and wrist, respectively. The 49ers are hopeful Samuel will be cleared for the start of the regular season. Shanahan suggested he does not believe James will be available.
“Our guys are kind of all over the place,” Shanahan said. “We mix them at each position. It's been a little tough deal with receivers right now. We've lost three guys before we've even practiced who are expected to make the team.”
Hurd was going to be on the 53-man roster, if he had not sustained the non-contact injury that will sideline him until 2021. So that opens the door for a wide receiver whom the club was not planning to carry as an active player into the regular season.
The 49ers' best two receivers during the opening days of training camp have been Kendrick Bourne and rookie Brandon Aiyuk. Trent Taylor is clearly the team's top slot receiver. The jockeying for the other spots is underway.
The onus is on Dante Pettis, after a shockingly disappointing second NFL season, to prove he has the right mentality to earn his spot on the roster. He still has a chance.
It also opens the door for seventh-round draft pick Jauan Jennings to prove to Shanahan that the offense will be better if he is suiting up for games –- and not just a member of the 16-player practice squad.
Jennings, at 6-3, 212 pounds, is the most physical of the 49ers’ receivers. He also has the toughness and fire that go a long way toward impressing the decision-makers. There is not another player on the team who could step into the same role Shanahan envisioned for Hurd, but Jennings might come the closest.
“I think Jalen was a little bit different in some aspects, but I think Jauan is a decent comparison,” Shanahan said. “He is big and he definitely has the mentality.
“It's definitely harder for rookies, missing all OTAs, missing all that stuff, because they come in and they want to go out there and compete so hard, but they're spinning a little bit. So, I know that with a lot of the rookies, but he's got the mindset, he's got the talent, he's got the tenacity to go out there and do it.”
Notably, the 49ers went from a young group of receivers at the beginning of training camp to one with a significant amount of experience. The 49ers signed veteran receivers Tavon Austin and J.J. Nelson last week. They are expected to add Jaron Brown, assuming he tests negative for COVID-19 three consecutive days in Santa Clara and checks out OK in his workout.
The benefit is the 49ers had the ability to add veteran players who provide more than just camp legs. Because of the thinning depth chart, any one of those veteran newcomers can make the final roster.
“We needed numbers right away, but we also need some guys who have the skillset to challenge the guys we already have here,” Shanahan said. “Those guys have proven it on other teams. They proved it coming out of college and so far, they've proved that they're capable of having a chance to earn a spot.”